I have been interviewing staffers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as part of a broader project for National Journal magazine profiling "Hill People." To a person, Republican and Democratic staffers on the committee say they want to see a six-year surface-transportation reauthorization bill completed this year. Everyone knows that's a tall order. It's already June. There are few options to pay for the proposal because of Republican mandates on spending and taxes. The earmark ban further complicates the endeavor.
It is significant, however, that no one disagrees with the overall goal. With a green light from House leaders, staffers could soon find themselves happily horse-trading the bill's details over pizza and Diet Coke. The only question is how they would narrow their focus, given the tight budget constraints. Smart Growth America may have provided one clue that could inch the committee down the yellow brick road. A report released last week found that between 2004 and 2008, states spent 43 percent of total road construction and preservation funds on the repair of existing roads, while the remaining 57 percent of funds went to new construction.
It's more cost effective to focus on the repairs, even though they may not win mayoral or city council elections. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates that every $1 spent to keep a road in good condition avoids $6 to $14 needed later to rebuild the same road once it has deteriorated significantly.
Is there a grand bargain to be struck here? Could a focus--mandated from Congress--on repair and maintenance, instead of new construction, reduce the cost of a surface-transportation bill such that the legislating process could begin in earnest? Would Republicans and Democrats embrace that idea equally? What are the drawbacks? Why does maintenance get ignored by states and cities? What is the appropriate role for new construction in a tight budget situation?